One particularly stressful morning just before Christmas last year, I got up, squeezed onto the wrong train, and went to the wrong job. There are many benefits to the modern portfolio career; forgetting where you work on any given day is one of the downsides.
The portfolio career is defined by the Financial Times’ Lexicon as ‘a working life in which you have several different jobs at one time, or a series of different kinds of job’. Also referred to as having a ‘side hustle’, or a being a ‘slashie’ (you’re a writer-slash-copyeditor-slash-lion tamer), it refers to workers who don’t have full-time jobs, but who make up a full working week by doing several part-time jobs all at once, with different employers, and/or self-employed, and/or freelance.
For example, I do three days a week as a commissioning editor at a book publisher; one day as a casual shift-worker on a newspaper; one day as a freelance journalist… and a bit of bricklaying on the side. I am simultaneously employed, freelance and something in between. No wonder I get in a bit of a muddle sometimes.
Portfolio careers are thriving in the US (a recent study found that 50 per cent of millennials had a side hustle alongside their main job, compared with 24 per cent of baby boomers), but meaningful UK figures are hard to find. When I approached the Office of National Statistics asking for information about portfolio careers, their spokesperson initially said he had never heard the term. The office does keep a tally of workers with second jobs, however, and these have been increasing by 38,000 year-on-year, to 1.154 million at the start of this year. In this latest set of figures, 658,000 workers with second jobs are women and 497,000 are men. Self-employment is also rising – from 12 per cent of the labour force in 2001 to 15.1 per cent of the labour force in 2017, with increasing numbers working on their own, or with a partner but no employees.
If all this implies a growth in portfolio careers, it’s not surprising, according to Sarah Brookes of the student and graduate careers organisation Prospects. ‘We first started talking about portfolio careers around the same time that millennials joined the workforce,’ she says. ‘Many grew up watching their parents make huge sacrifices for long-term job security. This type of career path offers flexibility and independence as well as opportunities to explore multiple passions and continually develop new skills. But it’s not for everyone. For some, the prospect of little job security and few employment benefits can be off-putting.’
Anecdotally, it seems that portfolio careers are booming, especially among women who write. The No1 Freelance Ladies’ Buddy Agency is a Facebook group that describes itself as ‘a place for freelance lady journalists to help each other, offer support and source case studies or experts for their articles/reports’, and it is rammed with multi-talented women. (It’s also a private group, so if you want to access it you’ll need to be invited.)
When I posted there asking if anyone had an interesting portfolio career and could offer any advice to
fellow travellers, I received 175 replies in just two days. They ranged from the unsurprising (journalist/translator or lecturer/ghostwriter) to the intriguing (yoga teacher/marketing consultant/writer/sober pub bar tender) to the downright awe-inspiring (model/adventurer-explorer/writer/cage fighter).
Melissa, who described herself as a journalist-DJ in a rock club, said ‘I’m a deputy editor as my “real job” and have been DJ-ing once or twice per month for about seven years. It was a god-send when I was on maternity leave, just to get out of the house one night per month and pretend I was normal’. Ally, a journalist/editor/dance teacher, said ‘The professionalism I’ve learned through running magazines etc. helps when I’m communicating with lots of parents about their kids’.
‘Uncertainty can contribute to poor mental health and that’s why people whose employment is precarious might be more susceptible to mental illness’
These writers put their fingers on some of the benefits of developing a portfolio career. The variety makes work feel like fun. What you learn in one career helps you in others. It’s flexible, interesting, and allows you to be your own boss. But there are drawbacks, and the one that most people mention is trying to manage your time. We all know how work expands to fill the time allowed. Well, what happens when you have four jobs, and multiple bosses and clients, who all expect you to be constantly at their beck and call?
Compartmentalising is key, according to Lisa LaRue, a career coach at CareerWorx. ‘I think it’s important to allot time to each segment of your portfolio career so that you can give the attention each role requires’, she says. ‘If not, things can quickly become blurred and chaotic, leaving you feeling out of control.’
My own portfolio career began, completely unintentionally, when I was made redundant after working at the same company for nearly 18 years. I hit the ground running, applying for staff positions and accepting every piece of freelance work that came my way, until entirely by accident I seemed to be doing all the jobs. I remember wailing to a former colleague, ‘But I don’t want a portfolio career, I just want a job!’ I received a redundancy payment, which included a small lump sum for ‘retraining’ – so I did a couple of publishing courses, and then blew the rest at the Builder Training Centre (BTC) in Croydon.
The BTC teaches students how to build a business as well as how to build English Garden Wall bond, and I quickly learned that I could make more money per hour as a bricklayer than I ever had as a book reviewer. (I also learned that, while my colleagues in publishing are all wildly impressed by my bricklaying side hustle, the bricklayers I have encountered are completely indifferent to my journalism.) My first job was working with a talented gardener I had met on my course, and after years of writing for tomorrow’s chip wrappers, creating something permanent and strong made me feel incredibly proud.
A recent study by business experts from the Universities of Sheffield and Exeter found that self-employed people tend to feel more engaged with their work, and enjoy the freedom to innovate and influence their working environments. But I was a reluctant self-employed slashie; being insecure and disposable and forever chasing payments was not my idea of a satisfying way of life. According to Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind, I am not alone. ‘Uncertainty can contribute to poor mental health and that’s why people whose employment is precarious might be more susceptible to mental illness,’ she says. ‘If you’re in this kind of employment, or freelancing, you don’t always know where your next pay cheque is coming from, and you might not have the same rights and benefits as permanent employees.’
There is another way of looking at this, however: having been made redundant from one long-term job, I can now see the value in not putting all my career eggs in one company basket. In this volatile working environment, spread-betting our careers might be the more sensible option. I’ve also learned that the constant variety makes work feel like fun. Most of the time.
Millennials and centennials are reportedly likely to experience a more flexible kind of working life, but even an old dinosaur like me can make it work
Another risk, according to Mamo, is overwork. ‘It might be that you’re putting in really long hours when you get the chance because you don’t know what’s around the corner. But consistently working long hours and managing an excessive workload can have an impact on physical and mental health and, in turn, on business performance.’
Mamo’s best advice is to maintain a good work-life balance, including taking time off. This is reinforced by the author/blogger/broadcaster Emma Gannon, whose book The Multi-Hyphen Method came out in May. For her, a portfolio career is about choosing a lifestyle, taking control, and genuinely ‘having it all’. Her book offers hope, encouragement and lots of advice, but no strict rules – apart from not being too hard on yourself. ‘If you’ve blended your work week and weekends make sure you give yourself time off’, she says, in one of many top tips, ‘… and don’t feel guilt about it!’
According to Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, millennials and centennials are likely to experience a more flexible kind of working life, but even an old dinosaur like me can make it work. My best advice is to let technology help you; know your own worth; and be good at organising your time. And when, one day, you head off on the wrong train to the wrong job, yet still make it to the right place – on time and (relatively) unruffled – you’ll know you’ve got flexible working nailed.
Make it clear to your clients/ bosses that you are not available to them 24/7 and that you have other roles. Portfolio careers are common and not something you need to conceal.
Use technology… Anything from a paper diary to online calendars to block out your time. Set alerts to remind you of deadlines.
…especially ‘out-of-office’ aids Set an email auto-response that will politely let people know when they can expect to hear back from you. Keep it switched on all the time.
Manage your money. Keep some savings in the bank for lean times and to pay your income tax. Communicate with HMRC – they’re helpful if you phone for advice. If you can afford it, employ an accountant to sort out your tax return.
Create an ‘office’. If you work from home, define a space to separate work and play. Treat yourself to a proper office chair (it’s tax-deductable), and a desk if you have room.
Don’t take on too much. Never set yourself more work than a reasonable employer would.
Join a support group. Running micro-businesses can be lonely, and online groups are there for moral support. The No1 Freelance Ladies’ Buddy Agency on Facebook is a serious place for freelance journalists and PRs if you can access it, and there are many others – or maybe you could start your own slashie group on Mslexia Max.
Promote yourself. If you have a website, make sure it has clearly defined sections for each of your roles and that your social media accounts are equally clear and up to date. If your roles are very different consider maintaining separate platforms and CVs.
This article first appeared in Mslexia’s Autumn issue, published 1 September 2018. To find out more about Mslexia, visit the website here. Click here to buy the Autumn issue, or take out a yearly subscription from just £24.75